By Hayat Alvi
The extremists and poor state leadership seem to endlessly repress progress, no matter what it takes. PHOTO: REUTERS The US presidential election is over, and President Barack Obama has another four years to tackle ever more complex and challenging issues, policies and strategies, especially pertaining to the Middle East. As the tragedy in Benghazi, Libya, illustrates, the only thing that will be easy is to be caught off guard.
Transitions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt portend extremely difficult times ahead. The US administration must heed the events and developments of recent months as warning signs, and devise strategies and policies accordingly, as the Yemen and Afghanistan-Pakistan scenarios are multiplying, thanks to the proliferation of hard-line, ultraconservative Islamists, namely the Salafists and their cohorts.
“The Arab Spring has given the heart of the Muslim world a real stability. But it has also given Al Qaeda enormous opportunities to reenter the Middle East and disrupt or co-opt the ongoing revolutionary process.... The fear is that Al Qaeda could return on the backs of Islamist parties.” This quote is by renowned Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, in his book Pakistan on the Brink.
Unfortunately, Egypt is looking more and more like Pakistan as it inches toward parallel ominous scenarios. Clearly the two countries are separate entities with their own unique contexts, but some of the trends in Egypt are disconcerting to say the least, and threaten to precipitate a descent into Islamic extremist bullying and violent domination along with chaotic no-man’s-land bursting with volatility, violence and terrorist safe havens.
Sounds familiar, right? Currently, both Pakistan and Egypt are run by civilian governments, and given Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist ties, he just might serve as Egypt’s Zia-ul Haq, the Pakistani general who implemented an “Islamisation” social policy in Pakistan in the late 1970s. His policies fueled Islamic fundamentalism beyond control, which now greatly threatens Pakistan’s future. The verdict for Morsi is still out, but the trends are not promising. The draft of the new Egyptian constitution has already alarmed liberals, human rights activists and women.
According to a November 7 Reuters article: “[Constituent] Assembly members met... and agreed to cancel a disputed article that some aspects of women’s rights including marriage and inheritance should be decided according to Sharia [Islamic law], and they modified others... An important article stating that ‘the principles of Sharia’ are the main source of legislation has until now remained unchanged from the old constitution.
But a new article seeks to spell out what those principles are in Islamic terms. However, that is not enough for many hard-line Salafi Muslims who want an unequivocal call to implement Sharia rather than wording they say liberals will use to water down the meaning.”
The extent to which Morsi will cave to Salafists’ demands, and how they translate into social policy (read: restrictions), will determine whether or not he will mimic Gen. Zia, and what kind of path Egypt chooses for its future direction.
Then there are the reports of Salafist bullies in Egypt who are “trying to impose Islamist ways on society,” quotes another November 7 Reuters article, entitled “In Egypt Streets, Islamists Throw Weight Around.” The article describes Salafi gang behavior: “From the fatal stabbing of a young man who was out with his fiancée to the case of a conservative teacher who cut schoolgirls’ hair because it was uncovered, the examples are stacking up.
Such actions have grabbed local headlines and fuelled the worst-case-scenario fears of moderates worried by the rise of Islamists who were tightly reined in by Hosni Mubarak but have emerged as a major force since he was swept from power.
“Christians say overall the atmosphere has become increasingly menacing as the presence of hostile Salafi Muslim hardliners in public life has grown more pronounced.
“‘Extremists’ actions are worrying all Egyptians and not only Christians,’ said Karim Goher, a Christian and one of the organizers of the halted [violently by Salafists] interfaith celebration in Minya.
“Self-appointed ‘committees for the propagation of virtue and elimination of vice’ have surfaced elsewhere. The name evokes the religious police of Saudi Arabia, whose strict brand of Wahhabi Islam has inspired Salafis in Egypt in recent decades.”
The more ominous quote is by Gamal Eid, founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information: “There is no doubt that the rate of strange and violent practices by strict Islamists have increased tremendously since the election of Morsi.”
An October 6 Washington Post article succinctly sums up the situation in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt: “As moderate Islamist leaders in all three countries begin to craft post-revolutionary constitutions, the Salafists in their midst are pushing – sometimes at the ballot box, sometimes at the point of a gun – to create societies that more closely mirror their ultraconservative religious beliefs and lifestyles.”
Then, we have the no-man’s-land dilemma: “They came in Toyota pick-up trucks, dozens of heavily armed masked men, firing machine guns and waving the black flag of al Qaeda as terrified residents and police huddled indoors, and then disappeared again, melting away into the mountains and remote villages of Egypt’s Sinai desert” (Reuters, August 13, 2012). This sounds too much like Pakistan’s ungovernable areas like Waziristan. Analysts predict that Sinai is about to become the new front for terrorism.
“They blend a toxic mix of smuggling, gunrunning and human trafficking with the ‘takfiri’ ideology of al Qaeda – which declares all Muslims who do not follow their purist, Salafist interpretation of Islam as ‘kafirs’ – infidels. Crime and religion are soldered by ferocious opposition to Israel.”
Pakistani extremists have India to hate, and the Sinai jihadis have Israel to hate. An entire section of this article is labeled “Tora Bora of Sinai,” describing the rough mountainous terrain in northern Sinai, serving as convenient hideouts for terrorists, much like Tora Bora in Afghanistan. Plus, security forces dread entering the area. Need I say more? The linkages between Egypt/Sinai and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region could not be more pronounced. Quoting Ahmed Rashid again, “A state failure in Pakistan or Afghanistan, unleashing a flood of extremists from these two countries, would quickly destabilize the Middle East and destroy the changes there.”
If President Obama thinks his first term was tough, and that the 2014 troop withdrawal from Afghanistan will be a smooth undertaking ensuring long-term regional stability and security, then he is in for some unpleasant surprises and rude awakenings.
The problem of Islamic extremism is only growing, throughout the Middle East and South Asia. The first to be harshly affected will surely be the people, the masses of women and men, who, as always, get caught in middle of the violent, gangster-like behavior of extremists, and the incompetent, indifferent leadership that claims to care about the citizens but in reality don’t give a damn. In many ways, nothing has changed. The extremists and poor state leadership seem to endlessly repress progress, no matter what it takes.
Hayat Alvi, a PhD, is an associate professor at the US Naval War College. The views expressed are personal.